The Low Anthem
The Low Anthem return from an extraordinary five-year journey with EYELAND, an unprecedented collection of multi-dimensional future folk crafted with uncommon vision and emotional depth. The Providence, RI-based band’s fifth full-length recording, EYELAND began as a “vague and rather abstract” short story by co-founder/singer/guitarist Ben Knox Miller, based around the “sonic mythology of a moth’s dreams.”The tall tale became real life as The Low Anthem immersed themselves in the creation of their own Eyeland Studios, developing Providence’s once obsolete Columbus Theatre into an innovative and in-demand recording space and live concert venue. EYELAND proves a prism of the album’s inner themes, refracting Miller and co-founding drummer/multi-instrumentalist Jeff Prystowsky’s sonic escapades into a full-blown Möbius strip of music and meaning. The Low Anthem’s lofty aspirations and creative capriciousness resonate throughout songs like “The Pepsi Moon” and “Behind The Airport Mirror,” their elegiac arrangements and lyrical frankness marked by shimmering ambience and a hauntingly defiant tension. Psychedelic in the truest sense of that overused word, EYELAND is a perspective-shifting musical experience at once elliptical and intangible yet still precise and powerfully personal.
The Low Anthem has always avoided “the predictive approach,” says Prystowsky, “following some textbook idea.” Miller and Prystowsky began making their idiosyncratic bedroom folk in 2007, best friends constructing something altogether new from old musical traditions. Troth was pledged to the spirit of DIY as the duo dumpster dove for cereal boxes which were then converted into art for that same year’s self-made first album, sold out of a suitcase while the nascent band mercilessly toured the Northeast.
The Low Anthem’s artistic range and ardent passion for exploration exploded as they grew into a full-fledged combo, coming to the fore with 2008’s breakthrough third album, OH MY GOD, CHARLIE DARWIN (reissued a year later to worldwide acclaim by the estimable Nonesuch label). SMART FLESH followed in 2011, earning further applause for The Low Anthem’s ongoing adventurousness as both artists and producers. The band recorded the album in a derelict pasta sauce factory outside of Providence, setting up shop in a space where the environment was sure to affect the entirety of the project. The Low Anthem supported SMART FLESH with nearly non-stop touring, including an epic 26-city support tour that saw them playing 1,000 capacity theatres across Canada. Hardened by the road, Miller and Prystowsky returned home determined to find a less transient studio situation.
“We knew we were ready to set up something more permanent,” Miller says. “Preferably a space we could heat.”
Inspiration struck, as it often does, over pizza. “Why don’t we have a venue in Providence like the 26 venues we just played in,” Prystowsky pondered over a midday slice before lifting his eyes and seeing the abandoned answer to his question.
The Columbus was regarded as a local curiosity by most residents of Providence. Built in 1926 as a vaudeville house, the 19th century Italianate palace somehow survived on second run movies and porn before finally shutting its doors in 2009, “OPENING SOON” promised on the marquee. The Low Anthem contacted owner Jon Berberian and a fast friendship was formed.
“Turned out we had a lot in common,” Miller says. “He’s 83 years old now, he’d been running this place totally DIY for 50 years. He’s a musician, an opera singer, and he loves the building so deeply. He sang for us from the stage to demonstrate how it has the finest acoustics in Providence.”
A large vacant room designed by necessity for maximum acoustics, The Columbus offered everything The Low Anthem was looking for – a one of a kind concert hall as well as an ideal studio space to begin recording their next album. Dubbing their studio as the true life “Eyeland,” the duo immediately set about exploring its sonic capabilities, “experimenting with every bizarre phenomenon of sound we could find,” says Miller, “not just the opera hall but also the concrete dressing rooms underneath the main stage, this huge cavernous concrete box with a totally different sound. Then there are smaller rooms, rooms with vaulted ceilings. There’s a silent movie organ in the attic with all kinds of sound effects, from horse clops to doorbells. We just ran around the building with 300 feet of snake, trying to see what we could record.”
“You can record right there in the opera hall,” Prystowsky says. “In the pit, to get that orchestral scale. Or you can do more conventional recording upstairs.”
Eyeland quickly proved the proverbial beehive of industry as local artists and bands came out of the woodwork, all eager to play live or cut tracks at the increasingly in-demand facility. EYELAND, the album, “was kept warm,” says Miller, “incubated,” as he and Prystowsky recorded over 30 different acts.
“The Columbus is a place where things are made,” Prystowsky says. “Where you take an artistic idea and you can just work. That’s why I think a lot of people like to come here to record or play live, they like the atmosphere of a working environment.”
Time kept slipping into the future, ultimately resulting in a parting of the ways with management and the first tier of non-original band members. Recorded as it was over a four-year stretch, EYELAND includes contributions from current members Florence Wallis and Bryan Minto as well as such erstwhile The Low Anthem musicians as Jocie Adams, Mike Irwin, Tyler Osborne, and Andy Davis.
“We were really floating in space,” Miller says. “Lost in the romance of this building and this community, with an unlimited amount of time and an undefined purpose, waiting to see what the hell was going to happen.”
The Low Anthem burrowed into the building and their work, pushing their creativity to its breaking point. Original EYELAND songs fell by the wayside while new pieces were written on the fly. Multiple versions were “lost in time,” says Miller as he and Prystowsky toyed with perspective, speed controls, aggressive editing, and progressively more outré approaches.
“A lot of our experiments were getting further and further away from recognizable instrumentation,” Miller says. “Delving more into music as sound pressure, as form, as an abstraction.” “We recorded it in a suspension of disbelief,” says Miller, “a certain kind of non-attachment that gave us the freedom to play with these songs.
“There’s an unpredictability that has permeated everything since we’ve been here,” Prystowsky says. “I think we’ve become more open to what could be. To what could be a drum or a guitar or a layer of sound? There’s so much fun in the unexpected, we’ve learned to really love that part of the process.”
The Low Anthem marched blindly into the unknown, surely unable to foresee the corner around which their project was about to turn. Widely regarded among the country’s most influential non-profit regional theatres, Providence’s renowned Trinity Repertory Company reached out to the band in 2014 to see if they might be interested in creating a new work for their stage.
“It just seemed like synchronicity,” Miller says. “Just bizarre timing. We decided to meet with them, even though we’d never considered doing anything like this before. We didn’t know what it might do to the record we were working on, but at the time it was just anything goes. We didn’t really have an end goal in mind so sure, let’s try our hand at turning this into a play.”
The Low Anthem rethought and retooled EYELAND, fine-tuning its structure and visual concepts with the help of Providence-based concert director/filmmaker Peter Glantz, known for his work with artists spanning OK Go and Wilco to Lavender Diamond and Lightning Bolt.
“We got to know him when he directed a video for our friends Death Vessel,” Prystowsky says. “He lived around the corner from the Columbus, so here was this great talent right in our neighborhood. We made one of the rooms in his house into our workshop where we met weekly and drafted the play from start to finish.”
EYELAND was reverse engineered to fit a detailed but still abstract storyline, conjuring a fantastical dreamscape “where the world is a trick of the eye,” says Prystowsky.
“It’s hard to detail the narrative without giving away the surprise ending,” Miller says. “The album exists in the dreamt reality of a few children who experience a traumatic break from innocence when an air hockey table catches fire and burns down one of their houses. The valley that they live in turns into a nightmare of paranoia and then there’s a battle to regain control over their consciousness.”
Surreal though it may be, the heart of Miller’s tale is “true to the word,” says its author. “It’s based on something that happened to a bunch of my neighborhood friends. The themes are universal but the plot definitely comes from my five-to-15 year old memories.”
It is to The Low Anthem’s extraordinary credit that EYEAND realizes their grand vision on virtually every plane, from the unified thematic context of the larger piece to the striking quality of its individual songs. “In The Air Hockey Fire” and “Dream Killer” are constructed upon strikingly simple melodies and Knox’s keening vocals, their languid sweetness belying an undeniable undercurrent of suburban angst and ennui. The album is also mined with examples of The Low Anthem’s epic aural ambitions, from the skittery noise pop of “Her Little Cosmos” and “Ozzie” to carefully constructed instrumental pieces like “Waved The Neon Seaweed” and “The Circular Ruins In Euphio,” the latter offering sly titular homage to the project’s own roots as short fiction.
Trinity Rep will premiere its stage version of “EYELAND” in 2017. The production promises to be as innovative as its sibling album, less traditional musical theatre than what Miller describes as “a large scale sound installation with professional actors and us as the pit band.”
Having spent the better part of the decade in their own hermetically sealed universe, The Low Anthem is now eager to present EYELAND to the world. The band is poised to leave The Columbus for an extended amount of time on the road, their first significant tour in four years. The goal is not to accurately recreate EYELAND but to capture a similarly imaginative ambiance with just four musicians on a stage.
“What we will be able to create is the same spirit in which the record was made,” Miller says. “To approach it with the sense of change is okay at all times, it will happen from night to night.”
“I’m excited to see how others will be effected by this experience,” Prystowsky says. “Ever since kindergarten I’ve loved show and tell – you make something and then go out there and show it.”
Heroic in aspiration yet intimate at its core, EYELAND will serve as a landmark for The Low Anthem as they continue their inimitable musical adventures. Lush, nuanced, and uncommonly creative, EYELAND stands tall alongside the thriving Columbus itself as testament to The Low Anthem’s determination and unstoppable growth.